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Utah Senate passes bill allowing exemptions to Biden vaccine mandate

Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, discusses a bill on workplace COVID-19 mandates during a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.
Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, discusses a bill on workplace COVID-19 mandates during a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Utah Senate passed a bill Wednesday that state lawmakers say would protect employees in the state from President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine workplace requirements.

“This was being worked on long before the Biden emergency temporary standard issued by (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration),” said Senate Majority Assistant Whip Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, noting that the order was stayed last week due to a challenge in court. “Of course, that complicated it a little bit, and we were waiting to see what that order looked like.”

Cullimore said lawmakers are trying to anticipate potential outcomes of litigation.

The bill provides employees the opportunity to use exemptions to vaccine mandates. He said it mirrors what exists in higher and public education. The exemptions include personal, medical or religious reasons.

The bill passed in the Senate 21-6, along party lines, with Republicans favoring it. Now it awaits a vote in the Utah House.

After some lawmakers brought up concerns about how the bill would affect some employers who need to follow federal requirements, the Senate replaced the bill with a watered-down version that provides an exemption to Medicare or Medicaid-certified providers or suppliers, as well as federal contractors.

The bill also allows circumstances where small businesses may be exempt “if the employer can demonstrate a vaccine-related need for those particular job duties,” Cullimore said. In response to input from businesses, Cullimore said a clause was added to the bill that allows a business to reassign an employee when reasonable if they can’t do their job without getting vaccinated — without it being considered an “adverse” response to a nonvaccinated employee.

“If there is no reassignment and it’s impractical then it would not be deemed an adverse action to take other recourse,” Cullimore said.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, questioned why the bill is important, asking whether people can be terminated for any reason in Utah under current law.

Senate Majority Assistant Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, speaks during a press conference to announce his proposed legislative package called Prosperity 2030 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. The proposed legislative package aims to reduce air pollution.
Senate Majority Assistant Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, speaks during a press conference to announce his proposed legislative package called Prosperity 2030 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. The proposed legislative package aims to reduce air pollution.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Cullimore acknowledged Utah is a “right to work” state, which allows a business to fire an employee for any reason, “but the concern is that we are in a brave new world here with COVID, and a lot of these employer mandates in fields where employers typically have not tread in requiring medical procedures, particularly the COVID vaccine here. So that is what we’re trying to respond to with constituents who are concerned about their employment.”

He called the bill an “imperfect solution” and said there will likely be ongoing discussions about the issue.

Riebe said the state has always been an “at will” state and questioned changing that through the bill.

Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, questioned whether the bill includes a way to repeal it should it cause issues with OSHA privacy in the state.

If federal mandates aren’t followed, the state risks having the federal government take over enforcement of OSHA laws.

“The intent is, and the understanding is, this is fluid, but this solves a big portion of the problem right now, understanding that there’ll probably be work on this bill even in the general session,” Cullimore said.

Last Thursday, OSHA officially issued the rule requirIng employers with 100 or more employees to ensure each of their workers is fully vaccinated or tests negative for the coronavirus at least once a week. The deadline for compliance is Jan. 4. If companies don’t comply, they could be fined nearly $14,000 per violation.

Utah joined four other states Friday in asking a federal appeals court in Texas to review Biden’s vaccination rules. Representing Utah in the lawsuit, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, a Republican, said the state is challenging the president’s mandate in order to protect Utahns from what he calls an “egregious and unprecedented” exercise of federal power.